In response to the March 7th, 2019 Smile Politely editorial, I wish to state unequivocally that elected officials in Urbana understand that people live in poverty in our community. For many years, the City has worked to alleviate the impact of poverty through funding social services and after school enrichment programs; protecting tenants’ rights; preventing homelessness and promoting access to safe, affordable housing. The emphasis on housing is important, because if people have stable housing, they are able to give more attention to family, work, education, health, and community.

We focus on rental housing because over 60% of households in Urbana live in rentals and the rent burden puts many families in a precarious position. Our Rental Registration and Inspection Program helps maintain building safety and ensures code compliance. Our Landlord-Tenant Ordinance outlines rights and responsibilities. The City’s Human Rights Ordinance prohibits discrimination in housing and other areas. It includes protection for people with prior arrests or felony convictions.

The City of Urbana leverages millions of dollars to promote safe, decent housing for the most vulnerable low-income households, seniors, and persons with disabilities. Here are some of the ways we address this need.

  1. City of Urbana staff are working with Cunningham Township, the City of Champaign, Champaign Township, and social service providers to open a year-round emergency shelter for women and families. We recognize the critical need for this emergency shelter. The City also operates a small-scale transitional housing program for women with children who are pursuing job training or education.
  2. Over the years, we’ve provided funding for construction of the TIMES shelter for homeless men, remodeling of Prairie Center for substance abuse treatment and renovation of Courage Connection properties serving victims of domestic violence.
  3. The City leverages funds for affordable housing construction. We’ve partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build 52 single family homes in Urbana over the past 25 years and another is in the planning stages. These homes stabilize neighborhoods and help low-income families build equity.
  4. The City works with the Housing Authority and private developers to build and renovate affordable housing. Our staff helps developers apply for low- income housing tax credits and the City often donates land for these projects. Recently completed projects include: Hamilton on the Park (36 units), Highland Green (33 units) and Crystal View Town Homes (70 units). The $5.2 million Aspen Court renovation will soon be completed in east Urbana (140 units). Two more Housing Authority projects are in the planning stages. These include the 24-unit Pinewood Place on Colorado Avenue for persons with mental and physical disabilities and a new 75-unit development on Lierman Avenue. The Lierman development will include a community center, a request that topped the list in a neighborhood survey.
  5. The Urbana HOME Consortium has invested over $2.5 million for down payment assistance to first-time homebuyers, Tenant Based Rental Assistance, and support for Habitat houses. The City assists low-income households with emergency home repairs, sewer lateral repairs, and whole house repairs. We sponsor neighborhood cleanups using Community Development Block Grant funds and support a community garden in east Urbana.

The Smile Politely editorial and other media posts misinterpreted sections of the Urbana City Code as targeting strategies low-income residents may use to navigate poverty. Clarifications are below.

  1. The Urbana City Council repealed the panhandling/aggressive solicitation ordinance several months ago in response to concerns expressed by the ACLU over similar ordinances in the state.
  2. Extended stay rooms are legal in the City of Urbana. Over the years, the City has helped people move from regular motel rooms to extended stay rooms. The latter are better equipped for long-term stays.
  3. In the past 20 years, no citations have been issued for “dumpster diving.” References to removing items from collection containers are in the 1999 ordinance establishing our Multifamily Recycling Program.

City Code language can be confusing when fragments are pulled out of context. I urge you to contact me or your Alderperson if you have questions about local ordinances and practices.

Finally, I wish to clarify the City’s role in social service funding. The City of Urbana and Cunningham Township have pooled funds for almost 25 years to provide small grants to local social service organizations. The Urbana City Council, also serving as the Township Board, approves the final grant allocations.

The total social service funding pool has remained steady at $250,000 for the last four years. The City is committed to maintaining its current contribution of $75,000 to the pool despite serious budget challenges. Years ago, our overall contribution used to be higher but we had to reduce it in 2013 after the loss of more than a million dollars in property tax revenue from hospitals.

My administration inherited a $2 million structural budget deficit in 2017. In addition to loss of hospital property tax revenue, the City’s General Operating Fund was hit hard by the recession of 2008, steady loss of local sales taxes due to online sales, significant cuts in state and federal funding, stagnant growth, and skyrocketing costs of repairing streets, sidewalks, storm sewers and other critical infrastructure. Please watch our financial forecast for more information.

We are tackling the budget deficit through reduced spending, revenue increases, a voluntary separation incentive program, and long-term growth of our tax base and population. We had to cut the budget by approximately $500,000 this fiscal year and we will have to cut another $500,000 next year as part of the plan to eliminate the budget deficit.

Each year, the City Council/Town Board takes stock of Township and City budgets and adjusts social service funding allocations as part of their fiduciary responsibilities to both organizations. They increased the Township’s allocation and decreased the City’s General Fund allocation several years ago.

Going forward, we’re committed to better coordination at all levels of government to use resources as effectively as possible alleviate the impact of poverty in our community.

Diane Wolfe Marlin
Mayor, City of Urbana